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Mayor assures landowners

The Dalles Mayor Steve Lawrence assured several landowners in the urban growth boundary last week that one of their disputes with the city’s land-use policy could be resolved in the near future.

He said The Dalles City Council and Wasco County Commission would hold a joint meeting Monday, Aug. 19, at noon to discuss several issues of mutual interest. One of the topics of discussion at City Hall, 313 Court Street, will be the Urban Growth Area Management Agreement.

Lawrence said the major cost for upgrading roadways in more rural areas of the city — to be paid by new development — was that existing standards required curbs and sidewalks to be installed. That has been a past point of contention between the city and county.

The city refuses to

accept maintenance of roadways that are annexed unless these improvements are made and the county has chosen to abandon these streets rather than spend money on upgrades deemed unnecessary.

“Do we really have to have curbs and sidewalks to expand the Urban Growth Boundary?” asked Lawrence at the Aug. 8 town hall meeting.

“There’s a lot of things up in the air but we’re trying to increase the level of conversation.”

His remarks followed citizen complaints at the forum about the city’s interpretation of a new law that left residents in the urban fringe area unprotected from the high cost of a minor lot partition. The assessment by the city to create a second or third lot is currently $351 per linear foot of street frontage, which translates into fees of $50,000 to more than $150,000.

City planners have interpreted the passage of House Bill 3479 eliminating the assessment — a prepayment for future infrastructure improvements — on residential properties in town. They base that analysis on language in the measure that defines its reach as a “city in Wasco County with a population greater than 5,000.” That, they say, excludes the land base just outside the city limits that will one day be annexed as the population grows.

Randy Hager, an East 10th Street landowner, said because of the city’s interpretation, he is still facing an $80,000 bill to create a second lot on his property. Meanwhile, his neighbors within the city pay no charge due to the July 18 enactment of the new law.

“We have no protection,” said Hager to Dave Hunnicutt, author of HB 3479, at the town hall organized by citizens.

Hunnicutt, who had been invited to the lecture hall at Columbia Gorge Community College to speak about the intent of the law, said the city’s interpretation for the UGB is of concern. He is the president of Oregonians in Action, a property rights advocacy group and a registered lobbyist.

“If that is the city’s position, then we’ll either look to litigate that issue or we’ll go back to the legislature in 2014 or 2015 and say, ‘Here’s the response you got to a bill that passed with super majorities in the House and Senate,’” he said to the 33-member audience.

“The legislature clearly wants to resolve this problem.”

He said because the city was given managerial authority by the county for properties just beyond the border, those parcels should be treated the same as those in the incorporated area. He said it was “disturbing” that a city staffer had assured the legislature that there was no need to include the urban growth area in the bill and then had excluded these landowners from the protection of the measure.

According to Hunnicutt, HB 3479 was strongly supported because there was no other city in the state charging people ahead for street improvements that might or might not happen. He said legal precedent has been set by the U.S. Supreme Court to limit the ability of government agencies to use zoning and land-use regulations to force landowners to pay for unrelated public improvements.

He said the issue of cost was also a factor in his decision to craft the bill. That asking residents of The Dalles to pay $150,000 to create one additional lot often exceeded the value of the land. And erecting one additional house on that property would not bring in enough new traffic to justify that high of a fee.

“These charges were a little over the top and when something goes too far, it needs to be reined back in,” said Hunnicutt. “We tried to be respectful and pass a law that was the least intrusive to the city.”

Lawrence reassured those in the room that city officials were moving as fast as they could to resolve differences that predated his term in office, which began in January. He said the issue rose to the forefront in 2006 and the city had been unable to find a solution acceptable to property owners since that time.

“The last thing I want is litigation,” he said. “The only people who gain in litigation are the attorneys.”

The moderator for the 90-minute forum was Rep. John Huffman, R-The Dalles, who sponsored HB 3479 at the request of Hager and other constituents.

Huffman agreed to move the bill forward out of the belief that the size of the assessment for partitions was stalling development on the eastern edge of town. He said that lowered the potential increase in property tax revenue that was needed to maintain essential services.

“A lot of potential development is represented in this room tonight,” he said.

“The city can’t enforce it until it has been interpreted into our system and the ordinances changed,” she said.

Also at the meeting to hear from their constituents were Councilors Tim McGlothlin, Carolyn Wood and Linda Miller. Several days before the meeting, Nolan Young, city manager, said he did not plan to attend or ask other staffers to be present.

McGlothlin said the council was moving forward to comply with HB 3479 and had already quit defining residential landowners as “developers.” He said another look would be given to the fee structure with that distinction in mind.

“We believe in democracy and how it works and that means we are obligated to listen to your viewpoint and make thoughtful decisions,” he said.

Wood explained that until the council had completed revisions to its land-use ordinance, staff had no choice but to adhere to the existing rules.

“The city can’t enforce it (new code) until it has been interpreted into our system and the ordinances changed,” she said.

Miller said it was important for people to let the council know where they stood on issues because most of the city’s citizenry did not attend meetings to speak out.

“If my point of view is not the same as my constituents, how do I know?” she asked. “We need to hear from the vast majority.”

McGlothlin said it was important to allow the east side to develop because that was the only direction left for the city to grow. He said the difficulty was finding the balance that would not overcharge landowners for development but make sure the cost of street work was covered.

“We also want to develop the infrastructure needed to keep people safe,” he said. “I think we’re all on the same page that we want that, but it all comes back to the dollars – how we pay for it.”

Hunnicutt said the usual way for a city to address this challenge was to form a Local Improvement District. He said landowners often requested that a special assessment take place to pay for utility and road upgrades. He said if The Dalles had difficulty gaining public support for an LID, it might be that the fee charged per linear foot of street frontage was too high.

He said the financial challenge involved with making infrastructure improvements was not unique to The Dalles. Other local governments across the state and beyond state are struggling to cover these expenses with the decline in federal funding for these projects.

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